The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is lagging well behind its peers across the country in fund-raising despite launching an aggressive development campaign, unable to keep pace with other state schools where tens of thousands flock to football games and alumni populate the Legislature.
The university's flagship campus of 25,000 students has consistently ranked well below average in total donations among the roughly 50 public universities of its size, according to a national higher education association survey.
In 2006, Amherst ranked 33d out of 50 universities for raising $28.7 million, while the median amount raised for the 50 schools with similar enrollment was $48.4 million, the Council for Aid to Education reported. The University of North Carolina was the best fund-raiser of the group, at $236 million.
Amherst's endowment pales in comparison to most public universities of similar size, and its percentage of alumni donating to the university has dropped each year since 2002.
The school's struggles cast doubt on outgoing chancellor John Lombardi's reputation as a strong fund-raiser and underscore the financial challenges his successor will face.
"Every way you slice it, UMass-Amherst appears to underperform compared to its peers," said John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a national association for fund-raising professionals.
School officials acknowledge that Amherst's fund-raising does not stack up to its counterparts, but said the fund-raising campaign is beginning to make strides.
"When you're starting off, you are spending money to build relationships with alumni that haven't heard from the college in 20 years," said Jaymie Chernoff, director of board relations for the UMass-Amherst Foundation, the college's fund-raising arm. "It takes a while working with people before they are ready to make a large donation."
Robert Connolly, a spokesman for UMass president Jack M. Wilson, said the Amherst campus needs to sharpen its fund-raising strategy to generate more support among graduates.
"I think it's fair to say that in general the university hasn't been able to mobilize our alumni the way other comparable schools have," he said. "We are trying to turn around a situation that's historic in nature."
University officials pointed out that the system's endowment has risen from $143 million in 2003 to $348 million today. But much of that increase has come from the system's four smaller campuses.
Many praise Lombardi for modernizing the school's fund-raising operations. He created the private foundation, following the lead of top fund-raising schools, and recruited business leaders for its board of directors.
UMass-Amherst increased its fund-raising budget from $5.1 million in 2002 to $8 million today and published regional newsletters targeted at alumni in major cities. To underscore the urgency of raising money, Lombardi handed staff and donors new coffee cups that said, "Quality Counts, Money Matters, and Time is the Enemy."
Lombardi declined comment, but supporters said his changes will ultimately pay dividends.
"We haven't set the world on fire but we knew that going in," said Gordon Oakes, a member of the UMass-Amherst Foundation. "We knew it was a long-term process."
UMass system officials said that fund-raising efforts under Lombardi should have paid greater dividends and that alumni support has remained stagnant.
"The needle should have moved by now," said a source familiar with UMass-Amherst fund-raising who asked to remain anonymous to avoid hurting donations.
An internal review of Amherst fund-raising found that while Lombardi was adept at landing seven-figure donors, the donor base had not expanded in a decade, and donations only increased at the rate of inflation.
The system report compared UMass-Amherst to leading fund-raising public universities, including Penn State University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia.
Those schools raised an average of $160 million in cash donations and pledges and spent an average of $23 million on fund-raising. UMass-Amherst raised $33 million in donations and pledges and spent $7.5 million.
Peter Wyeth -- vice president for university advancement at Virginia Commonwealth University, a school of comparable size to UMass-Amherst -- said the university raised the bulk of $400 million over the past eight years from business leaders.
The key, he said, was giving them a good deal of influence over projects they were helping to finance.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville last year spent $18 million to raise a whopping $300 million, school officials said. Leonard Sandridge, the university's executive vice president, said the university works tirelessly to stay in touch with its graduates so they believe they have a stake in the university's future.
"We spend a lot of time listening to alumni," he said. "We want them to feel engaged."
The university's deans are also major players in the fund-raising, but at UMass-Amherst, some deans have been reluctant to pitch in on fund-raising, according to a consultant and university officials.
Still, improving fund-raising at UMass-Amherst will not be easy. Unlike Virginia and other top fund-raisers, it lacks powerhouse sports teams.
It is not as central to the state's culture and identity as flagship state university campuses in the South and Midwest, and it also faces stiff competition with private colleges for money from big corporations and donors in the Bay State.
"The competition is very real," said Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
A survey of top legislative leaders on Beacon Hill showed that many were graduates of private colleges in the area -- Harvard, Boston College, Brandeis -- but none claimed UMass-Amherst as alma mater.
In states like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, graduates of flagship campuses are common in the Legislature.
Many Amherst officials and alumni said the university has given fund-raising short shrift.
"We were 20 to 30 years behind most colleges in private fund-raising when Lombardi arrived," said Cleve Willis, dean of the College of Natural Resources and the Environment at UMass-Amherst.
Wiliam Bulger, president of UMass from 1996 to 2003, hired Lombardi and defended his and the university's fund-raising record while acknowledging that many graduates have been reluctant to support their alma mater.
"Alumni have traditionally thought that they give through our taxes and aren't inclined to do it again," he said. "But I think we helped change the culture."
Bill Simmons, a senior vice president at a fund-raising consulting firm that has been working with UMass-Amherst officials for five years, said the university has "come a long way" in the past several years, but that it will take time to erase years of neglect.
"Other programs have been at this a long time and have it down to a science," Simmons said. "It's not surprising it hasn't jump-started overnight.
"Once alumni have become disconnected, it's practically impossible to get them back," he added.